Breasts and discursive rights

This is a post where I will need to tread very carefully: I am a man and I have never done any research on this. It’s a response to a very powerful post by Liz O’Riordan. And so, yes, I want to write about breasts, women’s breasts.

Despite that it’s not exactly rare or ‘special’ to see female nudity (particularly breasts) in film or on TV, in academic contexts, we have pretty much become bodiless. Although the body and embodiment are still a fashionable topic of research, it’s done by people who tend to programmatically ignore each other’s bodies (at least in public or semi-public, professional contexts). Even if we notice that a colleague has nice hands, legs, chest, biceps, breasts or any other part of the body which socially makes her or him attractive, on the whole we keep it ourselves. And when a few months ago, at work, I was complimented on the scent I was wearing (commonly referred to as ‘aftershave’, even though I don’t shave) I was quite surprised. (To make it clear, I didn’t mind it at all, I was actually pleased someone liked the perfume I like a lot.)

And so, as we have shed our bodies and have become our jobs/titles, a woman talking explicitly about her breasts is pretty much jaw-dropping. But even more importantly, the honesty with which Liz writes, is extremely poignant. She tells us in some detail about what she had thought about her breasts before her illness (not much) and then before the operation and after. My conditioning of a bodiless professor doesn’t really allow me to tell you in my own words about a woman’s body, so let me offer an extract:

I need to work out how my breast relates to me – my identity, my sexuality, my image. Will I still feel like a woman? Can one breast compensate for two? Do I actually need or want a reconstruction? How important is my active lifestyle in that choice? Will I ever accept what I see in the mirror? Will my husband? Do I need to grieve for the breast-feeding that will never happen? If I do have a reconstruction, do I want to keep my nipple? Again – how attached am I to it? How does my nipple define my breast? If I keep it, it won’t ‘work’ as the nerves will have been detached, so it will be numb. Do I need to see a nipple in the mirror to help me accept my reconstruction? Would a tattoo or a reconstructed nipple do the job?

A professional woman telling us about her breasts….That doesn’t really happen, unless…And this is the first point I would like to make in this blog. Liz’s post is all about the context and discursive rights. It is precisely the context of her illness, her mastectomy that makes it possible to talk about embodied femininity that is also defined by breasts. It’s the prospect of ‘losing a breast’ (yes, the comments on carelessness implied the phrase are spot on!) which gives her more ‘speaking rights’.

Illness, it seems, affords special discursive (or communication) rights, where the ‘normal’ restrictions do not apply. It’s probably the specialness of illness, its liminality, that suspends the usual constraints, and more is allowed and perhaps even expected. This is probably in the same way that illness affords us special rights with regard to working (note e.g. Parsons) or special moral rights (note e.g. Charmaz). The publicly bodiless can become embodied and tell stories which would otherwise have been disallowed or shocking. I actually did a quick online search for research on discursive/communication rights in illness and have not found much.

Incidentally, patients’ stories of the gynaecological examination suggest how difficult it is to talk about intimate parts of our bodies. The informants in a study I co-authored (the pdf file can be found here) juggled their identities, which, during the actual pelvic examination, were limited to their faces/eyes. That would also suggest that it is not the medical context that changes discursive rights, it is (serious) illness.

Before publishing it I sent this post to Liz. She told me me that it was the mastectomy that triggered the thinking about the breast and how difficult it was to think about it, because it had cancer. You can feel the cancer. But then, she continued, it means that it is also difficult to understand the ‘loss’. That comes later, sometimes much later. I think, it is precisely social acknowledgement of such experiences that allows ‘us’ to take ‘discursive liberties’.

And so, as the narratives of body and loss develop over time, in which the process of making sense of the body and what was ‘lost’ is made sense of, the doctor who turned patient becomes embodied. She becomes a woman with a body which has social meanings like it has in every single one of us, when we shed our academic, medical and other professional titles. We might not exactly be our bodies, but we certainly have them and negotiate them.

Now. the second point I want to make is about Liz O’Riordan’s description of the procedure in her breast unit. The discussion (under extreme duress of time) about ‘losing a breast’ seems limited to a few minutes on ‘reconstruction’ and ability to keep the nipple. Basically, the technical stuff, no doubt extremely important. But what about the stuff that her blog was about? What about discussing the relationship between breasts, embodiment, femininity, identity? Or perhaps about the scar that might scare the granddaughter (an example given to me by Liz). What about all those things that matter to an average embodied creature, whether a man or a woman. Breasts, and not only them, transcend way beyond the technical stuff.

I do realise that I have created an opposition between the surgical/technical and the social/semiotic. The opposition, of course, makes little sense, as both are and should be medical, as you, my doctor, understand that my body matters to me. It also has meanings, to me, those close to me, and those I meet from a distance. And this is so, even though I am professor. I also cannot escape embodiment, even though, at the moment, I cannot speak of it, as I am bodiless.


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